Did you know that the southern right whale is called that because back in the days of commercial whaling, they were the ‘right’ whale to catch? And that by 1845, just over 20 years after commercial whaling began in Jervis Bay, about 75% of the southern right whale’s population had been taken?
Thankfully, since whaling ended in Australia in the late 1970s, whale populations have been steadily growing again. It was estimated that in the early 1960s, the population during migration season was around 200-300. Now along the east coast, it’s estimated to be more like 8,000 – mostly humpback whales.
Dive Jervis Bay, on NSW’s South Coast, is a conservation-minded dive company that has introduced a Swim With Whales experience this year. It’s one of only two places in the state that holds a permit to host this kind of experience. From late August to November, visitors have the opportunity to get (safely) up close in the water with the cetaceans as they migrate south to Antarctica.
Swim with whales
The day I’m in Jervis Bay to swim with whales, the weather could go either way; glimpses of sun peak through charcoal clouds but luckily for us, the sun wins out in the end. The morning begins at Dive Jervis Bay HQ in Huskisson where we get wetsuit-ed up before boarding our small boat for the day. The water is pretty choppy but our guides, Pete and Chris, expertly traverse the swell.
As Chris drives us out through the bay and past the towering cliffs of Beecroft Peninsula, Pete tells us about the whales we’ll see, what we can and can’t do when we see them and why it’s so important to protect them.
In 2018, Dive Jervis Bay became a Sea Shepherd approved partner, meaning the dive company is fully committed to only conservation-based activities. For us, that means we can’t touch or feed the whales; chase or harass them; interfere with their swimming patterns; or approach any calves under 5 metres in length. The experience is all about observation, with an aim to educate visitors about the giant but graceful animals and their habitats.
The boat circles out in the ocean for a little while and all of a sudden, a few people on one side of the boat start exclaiming, “there! One just jumped out there!” We all crane our necks, squinting out in the distance to see what they saw. Before too long the sightings are frequent and there’s less and less distance between us and the whales.
Because the water is so choppy, we’re unable to get in the water with the cetaceans that morning. Pete tells us the whales swim deeper underwater when it’s that choppy in order to conserve their energy. But even just seeing the whales – humpbacks – dive in and out of the water so close to us is a genuinely breathtaking experience.
Swim with seals
While we didn’t get in the water with any whales that day, we did get to swim with a far cheekier animal. Pete and Chris took us back around Beecroft Peninsula into a sheltered bay, telling us stories about the area along the way. Then, we saw them! Dozens and dozens of seals sunbathing on the rocks of the cliffs. One by one they started sliding into the water, as did we when the boat stopped nearby.
Snorkelling on the ocean’s surface with a herd of seals gliding around you is a surreal experience to say the least. Their almost dog-like personalities means they’re super playful, coaxing you into chasing them and copying your moves.
While our day didn’t entail a swim with a cetacean, it was still an incredibly educational, exciting and unforgettable experience.
Dive Jervis Bay operates the Swim With Whales experience until the end of November. It costs $185 per person and goes for around five hours, with refreshments provided onboard.
Find out more: divejervisbay.com
Images: Somethings Wild and Jordan Robins
Jervis Bay is about a three-hour drive from both Sydney and Canberra – visitnsw.com
Bay and Bush Cottages, Jervis Bay – bayandbush.com.au